We Need to Make New Readers: The Literary Community’s Most Pressing Crisis

Fellow devotees of the written word, we are in a war for our very survival.  For centuries, the written word was the only way to share stories with those who were out of earshot.  Prose writers cornered the market and prospered, publishing stories and novels and poems in books, newspaper and popular magazines.  Throngs of readers who were hungry for their next narrative fix even lined a New York City pier awaiting the ship carrying the final installment of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, begging sailors for news of the protagonist’s fate.  Aside from a justified Harry Potter blip or two, this kind of anticipation is now reserved for blockbuster movies and the finales of television shows.  Believe me, I love Breaking Bad as much as the next guy, but we need to recognize that we have a problem and start to address the written word’s biggest problems.

Here’s hoping my thoughts start this vital conversation.

The sad truth

We’ve lost and pushed away a lot of readers.  These are our potential customers.  The statistics are depressing:

I wasn’t lying; all of that is depressing.  Here’s the crazy part: people still consume stories.  They still love stories.  They still crave forging an emotional connection through human creativity.

They’re just not doing it as often through the written word.

We must be as fun as other forms of media

As I already pointed out, Americans watch an average of five hours of TV each day.  How many of those people sigh as they recline into their La-Z-Boy and say, “Ugh.  Guess I need to watch some TV now”?  That sentiment, however, is applied, both fairly and unfairly, to reading.

Genre work (science fiction, mystery and romance, for example) don’t have as much of a problem with striving to entertain.  “Literary” work, for whatever the term means, seems much more preoccupied with being “important.”  Breaking Bad is a beautiful example of longform narrative, evolving characterization, master class acting, and examination of Aristotelian themes.

But that’s not how Breaking Bad is marketed and those scholarly qualities are not at the front of most viewers’ minds when they fire up the next episode on Netflix.  Breaking Bad is kickass fun with lots of action, lots of tension and lots of gunfire.  “You want to send a message,” the old saying goes, “call Western Union.”  Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, is obviously a brilliant man and a stellar storyteller, but he clearly wants the viewer to enjoy him or herself, too.  Gilligan charted the tragic downfall of a good man, but didn’t club you over the head with his message.

So many of us understand that reading is not homework, but we must admit that a lot of “literary” work feels that way if we’re going to expand our readership.  How do we make fun a primary goal of the literary community?

We must publish with a wider audience in mind

I am honored to have an MFA in Creative Writing.  I will always be grateful to the world-class teachers who shaped me and the colleagues who were kind enough to devote their time and attention to my work.  I’ve been writing for more than twenty years; this is what I love.  I was extremely fortunate to be able to get an advanced degree in the field I love.

This endless affection is perhaps why I am so desperate to expand the audience for creative writing, literary and otherwise.  Unfortunately, we’re far too often MFAs writing for other MFAs.  Other forms of media try to build as large a supporter base as possible.  Mainstream films, for better and worse, do whatever they can to pack theaters during opening weekend.  The creators of television shows compose with a wide audience in mind.  Musicians aspire to take the stage in front of thousands of people.

Writers of literary fiction?  A lot of us seem happy in our own little sandbox.  We love to experiment with form and language and subject matter, but as any scientists will tell you, most experiments fail.  And the general public doesn’t care about experiments.  They care about the useful innovations that result.

I’m as suspicious and as doubtful of unbridled capitalism as the next guy; I’m not advocating a publishing world in which profit is 100% of our motive to write.  I do, however, wonder whether wide readership and profit are high enough on our list of priorities.  Yes, write the words that are in your heart.  That’s what all of us do.  But let’s not create an stylistic and ideological echo chamber.

Take the example of Esperanza Spalding, the ridiculously talented jazz performer.  Sad but true: jazz is not exactly blowing up the Billboard charts in 2015.  Ms. Spalding, however, is kind enough to share her talent in other areas instead of restricting herself to performing somewhat experimental jazz in clubs.  When she performs an extremely accessible Stevie Wonder song at the White House, she expands her audience and chips away at the false societal belief that listening to jazz isn’t fun.

Don’t forget: Stephen King spent a few decades as an outcast in the literary community.  How do we create and nurture the fun work that brings in a larger audience?

We must change the way in which we market our work

We already know what “reluctant readers” want in the art they consume.  They want entertainment and escape.  Imagine that creative people of all stripes are proprietors at a state fair.  We stand outside the tents, barking invitations to passersby.  Who will bring in the most customers?

In front of the film tent, you hear: “This Batman movie is going to be so much fun!  You’ll love the spectacle!  Falling into this narrative is so much fun!  And the movie’s pretty good!”

In front of the music tent, you hear: “Come on in!  Participate in the fun!  Sing along with the music!  Sway to the beat!  Instagram this for your friends!”

In front of the literary prose tent stands a person with folded arms who says, “Hey.  This is the most important book of the year.  You’re going to learn so much.  Half of the words are in Mandarin and backwards to reflect the necessity of rejecting neocolonialism and to dissituate conventional methods of cognitive perception.”

I wouldn’t want to read that book, either.  When James Patterson was starting out, he wanted to do commercials for his books.  You know, to attract as many readers as possible.  His publishers told him they “don’t do commercials.”  Patterson paid for one out of his own pocket.  The rest is history.

Here’s a modern example.  Note how the spot appropriates the conventions of the way films are marketed.

We all want our writing to impart deep truths about humanity.  But how can we do that if we can’t get people to pick up our work?

We must invite men back

I don’t know about you, but I bristle when scholars such as Louann Brizendine say things like this:

“Reading requires incredible patience, and the ability to ‘feel into’ the characters. That is something women are both more interested in and also better at than men…”

Would we accept such a dismissive statement were it directed toward women?  Men didn’t have a problem marshaling the patience and empathy necessary to read in the past, so why would today be any different?

Men represent slightly less than half of the population, of course, so shouldn’t we want to do something about the fact that we are ignoring so many customers?  The National Endowment for the Arts conducted a survey to understand Americans’ how and how often we participate in the arts.  Read it and weep:

neastats

Why are we having so much trouble attracting male readers?  There’s no all-encompassing answer to the question, but there will be no answer at all to the problem unless we start an open and honest discussion.  If nothing else, it’s probably a good idea to attack the cultural biases that men don’t have the patience or empathy to enjoy literature.

We must reject the inflammatory clickbait mindset that pervades so much of our media

Clickbait is dishonest.  That’s why they call it “bait.”  You read the headline and wonder what Donald Trump said now, then you click on a web site that has several dozen ads, a few autoplay videos and a couple hundred words of useless summary of someone else’s article about the Trump quote du jour.

SNAP.  The metal bar broke your neck.

The other form of clickbait is the deliberately inflammatory 800-word essay that tells you what you should feel about some controversial issue.  (Sometimes it’s even a “nontroversial” issue.)

What happened to “show, don’t tell?”  We are artists, friends.  We don’t tell people how to feel.  We don’t tell them they’re evil or wrong if they aren’t in full, complete and instant lockstep with everything we believe at any given time.

The writing that we create should not be disposable.  No one cares about “We Slathered a Baby With Honey and Put Him In a Bear Enclosure. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next” five minutes after it’s published.  It’s our job to create the conditions in which people can access their humanity through contemplation of literary work.  We can’t force people to think what we do.  Why should our creative work resemble a lecture?

We must dissuade many people of the notion that reading is homework and writers are boring

I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but the Stephen Kings of yesterday somehow became enshrined in an ivory tower, separated from the popular consciousness.  When I first read Jane Austen in high school, I was struck by how contemporary it felt.  Sure, Austen died in 1817 and the characters don’t even have radio, let alone television, but the Dashwoods feel like real people who just don’t have cell phones.  Unfortunately, a lot of people think that Austen and Shakespeare and Hemingway are dusty busts on a shelf in your tenth-grade English classroom.  No.  These were real human beings who gave us works that survived for a reason: they are both entertaining and meaningful.

Director Baz Luhrmann has made successful films based on Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby.  The audience members who filed into theaters did not do so for a lecture about the dangers of authoritarian parenting or repressed emotions.  People saw those movies because they wanted to be entertained.  As I said earlier, they got the messages because they were lured into the tent–not the other way around.

The way forward

So where do we go from here?  I don’t know.  I guess it all starts with a genuine conversation about these issues, ones that often get short shrift in our wonderful community, even though they have a direct impact upon our prominence and survival.  By all means, leave a comment below or on social media or write a rebuttal on your own blog.

This crisis was also part of my motivation to create Great Writers Steal Press.  Can we change the way short stories are marketed?  Can we convince people who don’t have MFAs that reading is not homework?  Can we show people who share song lyrics on Facebook but say that they hate poetry that they actually love poetry?  Our backs are against the wall, friends.  Do we try to reclaim the proverbial “woman on the bus” as a reader?  Or do we just give up and let her check her Facebook on her smart phone a thousand times during that trip instead?

Kenneth Nichols

Addendum

As I’m sure you’ve deduced, I’m trying to expand my own personal audience and the influence I have to help other writers.  If you don’t feel like contributing to the conversation I’m trying to start, will you share this essay with your literary and non-literary friends? Of course, you could always take a look at the eBooks that are out to date.

You can keep up with Great Writers Steal on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.  Or you can follow this blog.  There are so many ways to connect!  Let’s get out there and make a difference in the culture at large!

4 thoughts on “We Need to Make New Readers: The Literary Community’s Most Pressing Crisis

  1. Anthony Martin

    One trend I have noticed, at least in the “Twittersphere,” is the tendency for writers to put out their hey-I-just-published-something-please-go-read messages without much reciprocation for the other writers doing the same. I hear this thrown around a lot (and you did mention it in this post): most of the “literary” world is inhabited by writers writing for and reading other writers. Maybe so. Does that preclude engaging with, sharing, commenting on the work of others? It isn’t absent, to be clear; but it is often sparse in places (read: around very strong work that deserves attention) I expect it most. I’ll read a piece that knocks me right on my ass, look up, look around, and say to myself, Am I the only one reading this fine work? Talking about it? (This is, of course, one of the great things about The Great Writers Steal.)

    My point is: maybe we need to do a better job with the numbers (headcount) we have (writers, editors, etc.), be in more constant motion, so that our motion attracts a broader audience.

    –AM

    PS I do not mean to discount any of the folks out there who embody exactly the kind of engagement I describe above. They exist. They are awesome.

    1. readingisnothomework

      I half agree and half disagree. I see a lot of my Facebook friends (I don’t have that many…) commenting on and sharing work. I keep thinking of my Facebook friends who aren’t writers and may not be readers. We do a great job of sharing work within the community, but not so much on the outside. Instead of just inviting people into our community, we should do more outreach.

      What do you mean by “constant motion?” I think we need to explicitly target those we’ve been pushing away and address the stigma that has developed.

      1. Anthony Martin

        Fair enough. I suppose I was more referring to the Twitterverse. By constant motion I mean being a consistent reader / writer/ literary citizen, so to speak, not just when it is your own work going out into the world.

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